Take a page from the past: Books and technology do mix

FresnoApril 19, 2014 

It's tempting these days to think of any printed book as low-tech. Or even no-tech. How can the "technology" of a plain old ordinary book, with black and white pages sandwiched between a boring cover, even be compared in the same breath to, say, an e-book on an iPad?

But linger for a moment in front of the "Life of Christ," printed in Latin in 1474, the oldest original book in the wonderfully curated exhibition "Turning Pages: Intersections of Books & Technology" at Fresno State's Madden Library. Just imagine what it would have been like for someone who'd never seen a printed book before to contemplate this volume's beauty: the text formatted into two neat columns on a page, the type uniform and evenly spaced, the pages crisp and inviting.

Think of how the paper and ink were made. Think of the craftsmanship. Think of the ingenuity of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented European moveable type, which made this volume possible. Such aspects might seem quaint today, but for the time, they were technological marvels.

One of the delights of this clever and good-hearted exhibition, co-presented by the library's Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children's Literature and the Special Collections Research Center, and curated by Jennifer Crow and Tammy Lau, is the way it nudges the viewer toward a greater appreciation of the staying power of books, no matter the format or technology that made them possible.

Books come in many forms: printed, audio, pop-up versions, digital. You can trace their progression in "Turning Pages" — from the hieroglyphics on a facsimile of the Rosetta Stone to an iPad version of "Horrible Hauntings," billed as an "augmented reality collection" in which readers are able to see and interact with 3-D ghosts.

There's an artistic element to the exhibition as well. Books can be more than just a way to convey text. They are objects in themselves — and can be used to make art. (Not all books are meant for posterity; libraries dispose of duplicate and unneeded books all the time to make way for new ones.) Five artists known for their work in repurposing old books in their works are included, including Los Angeles-based Mike Stilkey, whose "A Day to Remember" features a whimsical elephant and bow tie painted on stacks of hundreds of ex-library books.

Along with examples of different kinds of books, the exhibition gives a glimpse at the way they've been made, from early printing presses to a display of typewriters from across the years, ranging from an ancient Webster manual Corona to a sleek Smith-Corona daisy-wheel electric. (The typewriters have turned out to be one of the most popular displays, with oodles of school children — and even some college students — cheerfully announcing that it's the first time they've ever seen one in person.)

Perhaps the most high-tech example of putting books together: an interactive project designed by Fresno State faculty member Rusty Robison called Exquisite Storybook. It's a takeoff on the game Exquisite Corpse, made popular by Surrealist painters in the 1920s, in which art is made collectively by a person adding in sequence to what other collaborators have already done. Exhibition visitors (as well as online viewers at home) can contribute to their own book by working through a dynamic website.

With its dynamic displays and colorful interactive experiences, "Turning Pages" has a lot to offer children, and it's fun for adults to engage in a bit of nostalgia as well. (Remember the Teddy Ruxpin stuffed bear back in the 1980s that "read" a story to you, thanks to a cassette tape in back?) There's plenty to ponder as well, however.

I think about how much my life has changed because of audio books in the car. Where once I whiled away my driving hours listening to music or the radio, I now consume dozens of wonderful books a year — just in my daily commute. Technology has made it possible for me to "read" (or listen) to many more books than before.

But there's also a tendency, living in a culture marked by rapid technological change, to affect a certain smugness about it all: Can you believe that people used to tromp down to a bookstore instead of downloading to Kindle? Woe be to those who can't keep up with change! There's a tendency to roll our eyes at that which was only a few years ago.

The reality is that technology goes obsolete — and quickly. Consider the case of the celebrated children's author Ruth Bornstein. For her book "Little Gorilla," first published in 1976, she had to render the color illustrations on four separate plates. You can see them in the exhibition — and marvel at the skill set involved in terms of lining up the colors exactly.

Like the ability to typeset by hand — or even use a manual typewriter — the need for those specific skills has faded away, kept alive only by dedicated artisans.

What's the lesson?

Don't get too comfortable. And, like those in the Gutenberg era, keep your sense of wonder. Who knows how books will change in the near and far future?

Perhaps, years from now, visitors at a future installment of "Turning Pages" will gape at artworks constructed from discarded iPads and cluck at those poor folks who had to use a wireless keyboard to get their thoughts into print.

What I remain bullish about, however, is that books will continue to endure — in whatever form — no wonder what the next page may be.


"Turning Pages: Intersections of Books & Technology," through May 30, Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery, Henry Madden Library, Fresno State, turningpagesfresnostate.com, (559) 278-8116. Free. To access Exquisite Storybook online, go to www. exquisitestorybook.com


The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.

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